Monday, March 27, 2023

Grassroots mojo and 4 other reasons why Starbucks workers were so successful with union

Starbucks Workers United won its 100th election on May 27, 2022 – fittingly, in Seattle, the company’s hometown. And the union has scored another 46 victories in just over two weeks since then. It comes six months after organizers won their first two union victories in Buffalo, New. York.

Although every union-affiliated workplace is small, with a few dozen employees each, the campaign is, in my calculation, already one of the most successful union efforts in recent U.S. history, with victories in 28 states. More than 100 additional Starbucks stores have filed petitions to unite unions and await elections in the coming days and weeks, and several other votes await decision. Starbucks strongly opposed the campaign, and the union has lost about 22 elections so far.

The overwhelming success of the Starbucks labor organization efforts has inspired workers at other retailers, such as Amazon, REI, Apple and Trader Joe’s, who have all seen an increase in organizing activities or even their first unions.

When the Starbucks union movement was in its infancy, few observers believed that the campaign could spread so quickly or win so many elections, often by large margins. Indeed, a few years ago, most union officials would have thought it impossible to organize a young and often transient low-wage sector workforce spread across nearly 9,000 small shops. And most unions in recent decades, such as at Walmart and FedEx, have failed.

So why was the Starbucks campaign so much more successful?

As a scholar who has studied corporate opposition to unions for 20 years, I believe there are five key reasons.

1. Shift in sentiment

The Starbucks campaign, I believe, probably would not have been successful three years ago before the pandemic hit.

After March 2020, service workers faced increasingly difficult, stressful and dangerous workplace conditions. For example, they have often been tasked with enforcing mask and vaccine mandates and dealing with rebellious clients who have refused to comply. And their work in the front lines puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. At the same time, surveys have shown that many workers do not think their employers treat them with respect or provide adequate safety equipment.

As a result, record numbers of workers – especially in the service sector – began to resign in mid-2021 in what became known as the “big resignation”. The labor shortages put more pressure on overworked employees, and the huge increase in orders for mobile applications exacerbated workplace stress for Starbucks baristas.

However, these workers who did not resign their jobs became more bold and seized an opportunity to get organized. Today, support for unions in the US is at its highest since 1965, at 68%.

2. A role model

Starbucks Workers United’s strategy involved the union association of one store at a time using a worker-driven model that could be replicated easily and quickly.

At the start of the campaign in December 2021, Starbucks management tried, and failed, to require the union to win a majority of all Starbucks workers in Buffalo – not just those at individual stores. It is likely that pro-union workers would have lost such an election, but the National Labor Relations Board rejected Starbucks’ arguments.

This enabled workers to organize each store one at a time and develop a repeatable model, enabling it to distribute quickly. In fact, when commentators describe the campaign as spreading “like wildfire” or similar terms, it obscures the innovative and deliberate process behind its remarkable success.

Workers usually find out about the campaign through traditional or social media, and then reach out to organizers behind the campaign. They then have a Zoom meeting with a worker organizer at a union store that explains how to print cards, how to sign up with the union to discuss with colleagues, how to write a letter to Starbucks CEO, To write Howard Schultz to request union recognition, and how to petition the NLRB for an election. This pattern has been repeated several times across the country, even in places where unions in the private sector are scarce.

There is no clear reason why a similar model could not work at other non-union enterprises with young, progressive workforce, such as Trader Joe’s, Apple and REI. Indeed, Trader Joe’s employees at a Massachusetts store had just filed to establish the company’s first union, and REI employees in Manhattan voted in March 2022 to establish the company’s first union store.

A Group Of Diverse Workers Who Mostly Stand And Wear Black Memphis 7-T-Shirts Celebrate Victory
A group of fired Starbucks employees celebrate the result of a vote to unite one of the coffee company’s locations on June 7, 2022, in Memphis, Tennessee. Starbucks says the former employees were fired for violating company policies, but the so-called Memphis Seven says they were let go in retaliation for union efforts.
Associated Press Photo / Adrian Sainz

3. Starbucks’ progressive rep

Another factor that has helped Starbucks pro-union workers is the retailer’s self-proclaimed progressive reputation, as evidenced by its public support for issues such as LBGTQ rights and racial justice.

This, of course, attracted workers who tended to be young, college-educated, more progressive, and therefore more likely to support a union. The downside of Starbucks’ apparent progressivism is that its efforts to prevent workers from forming unions are considered hypocritical by some employees.

In addition, Starbucks’ tendency to speak out on progressive issues has increased media attention around workers’ efforts to organize and Starbucks’ response to it. This helped spread the campaign much faster and further, and encouraged like-minded baristas elsewhere to join.

4. Community of the baristas

The campaign also benefited from the strong sense of community that already existed among Starbucks’ young staff.

Starbucks has long cultivated a sense of camaraderie among its workers. This is what they call “partners”, for example, which implies that they are not just casual employees, but play a significant role in the company. Lawyers and hedge funds use the term partners to refer to employees who have an ownership interest.

Although workers said they often felt they were not being treated as such, it helped create a close-knit community at individual workplaces. This is why most of the union votes were either overwhelming or unanimous. In the words of the union, the campaign is about “partners who become partners.”

5. Mojo at grassroots level

Unlike unions of the past, which are more typically directed by national or regional leaders, Starbucks workers have driven the union largely on their own. These decentralized, grassroots dynamics are what made the union campaign spread so widely and so quickly.

The old way of organizing was dependent on union organizers approaching workers at each location, which made it slower and much more cumbersome. Some labor leaders are now more ready to embrace organization at a more grassroots, worker-to-worker level.

When workers take the lead, it means you are more likely to have local purchasing – the organizers are inside the workplace and known and trusted by their co-workers – and do not require them to wait for other union leaders to recognize an interest in a to form a trade union. And in this way, the activist workers not only feel as if they are part of a trade union, but they are the trade union themselves.

For these reasons, I believe there is a high chance that a majority of Starbucks stores will eventually become a union. And if the Starbucks model continues to be successful, it could encourage workers at other companies to adopt the same playbook. In fact, we may be on the verge of a union revival like American workers have not seen in almost a century.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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